One woman’s life reporting on Syria — for $70 per story

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Bastion of the Citadel of Aleppo, Syr...
English: Bastion of the Citadel of Aleppo, Syria Français : Bastion de la citadelle d’Alep, Syrie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This story, from the Columbia Journalism Review, is going viral among my journalist/writer/foreign correspondent friends.

It is written by Francesca Borri, an Italian woman who has been reporting from Syria as a freelancer:

People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s
exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the
stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just
the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today
is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even
Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in
Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the
Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their
power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline
piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am
answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”


But whether you’re writing from Aleppo or Gaza or Rome, the editors
see no difference. You are paid the same: $70 per piece. Even in places
like Syria, where prices triple because of rampant speculation. So, for
example, sleeping in this rebel base, under mortar fire, on a mattress
on the ground, with yellow water that gave me typhoid, costs $50 per
night; a car costs $250 per day. So you end up maximizing, rather than
minimizing, the risks. Not only can you not afford insurance—it’s
almost $1,000 a month—but you cannot afford a fixer or a translator.
You find yourself alone in the unknown. The editors are well aware that
$70 a piece pushes you to save on everything…But they buy your
article anyway, even if they would never buy the Nike soccer ball
handmade by a Pakistani child.

With new communication technologies there is this temptation to
believe that speed is information. But it is based on a self-destructive
logic: The content is now standardized, and your newspaper, your
magazine, no longer has any distinctiveness, and so there is no reason
to pay for the reporter. I mean, for the news, I have the Internet—and
for free. The crisis today is of the media, not of the readership.
Readers are still there, and contrary to what many editors believe, they
are bright readers who ask for simplicity without simplification. They
want to understand, not simply to know. Every time I publish an
eyewitness account from the war, I get a dozen emails from people who
say, “Okay, great piece, great tableaux, but I want to understand what’s going on in Syria.”

Many kinds of reporting, especially war reporting, (and photography and video and audio) — must be done firsthand.

It can’t be done, contrary to the fantasies of some journalism students who have to be shoved out of their classrooms into the world to talk to real people face to face, by Googling everything!

It’s often terrifying and exhausting. It often leaves the journalists (and their fixers and translators) who do it with PTSD; the terrific Dart Center helps them heal after such work.

Great reporting, of the sort Borri is doing and describing, is damn dangerous. It killed legendary American reporter Marie Colvin. It killed legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, who died — of all things — of an asthma attack in reaction to the dander of the horses he needed to ride to get into Syria.

The photographer with him, Tyler Hicks, as soldiers expect to do and reporters do not, carried his dead body back to civilization.

We cannot, must not ever accept, only the official/sanitized/biased reports offered up by the military or rebels or the government or corporate flacks.

Everyone, everywhere has an agenda.

The reporter’s primary job is to witness, describe, analyze, explain. They/we are more essential than ever in a world of spin , sound bites and soi-disant journalists who “publish” their point of view without an ounce of training or ethics.

But risking your life for $70 a story? It’s a fucking obscenity. Her editors and publishers should be ashamed of their cheapness — I bet they blow that much money each week on their morning espressos.

I do admire her spirit and her dedication.

Would you do it?

What do you think of her choice?

39 thoughts on “One woman’s life reporting on Syria — for $70 per story

  1. Caitlin, I could not do it. I just do not have the courage to do such work. I know that the death of journalists has increased exponentially since the invasion of Iraq. I have said before on your blog that I trust the journalist in the field more than any other news source. And regarding her choice – not worth her life.

  2. I think she’s deeply dedicated to her craft and the editors should pay her full-time for it, considering the risks she’s taking. I seriously don’t know what’s wrong with them. And “nobody died”? Contrary to popular belief, not everyone is attracted to a story just because it has death and chaos in it!

      1. Maybe she’s looking for a book deal? After all, it’s very ballsy of her to go to Syria like that and report from the front lines. She could write a great book based on her experiences.

      2. No one should have to starve for their “passion.” As my colleagues have said to one another many times, “I have no plans to be a nun for journalism.” Her publisher is making a very nice profit from her too-cheap labor.

  3. As someone who is not privy to the world of journalism, it is shocking to me that an editor would reject a more “complex” story (i.e., one that digs into the story behind the story) for a “just tell me who died” type of story. I very much agree with her that readers want to know and understand why and how, not just that somebody died again. We are inundated with stories of tragedy — the more important question is WHY, not what.

    It’s depressing that she is out there (a) risking her life for $70 an article and (b) churning out factory pieces rather than being able to produce anything of real substance. Is it really just the editors that are driving this, though? It seems that readers with short attention spans and a constant need for entertainment (even when it comes from the news) must also be to blame…

  4. All I can say is I am in awe.

    But I don’t think $70 a story is bringing out the best in anybody. I hope what we eventually move towards is paying, not for the first or the bloodiest story because that is no longer anything special, but the most intelligent, the most nuanced, the most sensitive portrayal. I doubt that will happen, but I can hope, can’t I?

    1. I agree with you…and some news organizations (magazines and documentaries, more likely) will do so. The day-to-day bang-bang stuff is never likely to be very deep or thoughtful. Often there is no time.

  5. Unbelievable piece Caitlin. We talk about free speech, but how free is it when it costs the lives of those reporting it?
    It’s not only that the price is too high, or life is too cheap, but there seems to be a dearth of personal responsibility perhaps by those for whom she is reporting or by those whose stories need to get out.
    Where is the moral courage that created the French Underground, or the Polish Resistance. Maybe they exist in Syria, Iraq and other middle eastern places but I didn’t see them; maybe their stories have yet to be heard. I hope there is a dedicated journalist nearby when they need one.
    Thanks for the wake up.

    1. Thanks for caring!

      This sort of reporting is essential, and always has been. There have been many brave women reporters through the years in war zones — Janine Giovanni (still alive) and in WWII Marguerite Higgins and Martha Gellhorn, to name only two. Did you know that Julia Child even worked for the OSS?

  6. I wouldn’t do it. Like the poster above me, I’m not that brave. For those who have the temerity and calling, they should be paid a living wage (which $70 is NOT) for any piece, and double for any that involves known risk. Shame on those publishers, this is an absolute disgrace.

  7. Perhaps she has no choice given the state of the economic crisis in Italy. It’s easy for me to say I wouldn’t do it when I have several zero risk alternatives lined up. I admire the lady’s courage and grit.

  8. That’s as close to Free Speech as we’ll get on such a miserly pittance. She should name and shame the Newspaper that pays so little for someone on the front line. After all, without her pieces who else would be there? I hope it’s one of the tacky tabloids hat she works for as I’d hate to think serious newspaper would a) pay so badly and b) treat it’s readers with such disdain as to imagine they wouldn’t prefer a piece they could read over breakfast without making them want to throw up.

  9. Reading Ms. Borri’s article brings two important things to mind. First, when I was 18, I lived in the Netherlands for two months and traveled to Paris and Hamburg. Getting out from under the American media net was a revelation. Second, I am reminded that I write novels and short stories from the safety of my office in my home. Journalists like Ms. Borri are brave and tough and sacrifice so much more to get their stories. How terrible that they are not paid a commensurate amount in both money and respect.

    1. You have seen, firsthand, how bizarrely narrow American media are….You can go months, possibly years, without news from Latin or Central America, many parts of Asia or the Mideast…If there is no economic or political fallout for Americans, they are unlikely to cover it…unless it is a sensational trial like that of Amanda Knox. Sad.

  10. News like everything else has become too commercial a business. The value for the truth, and craft/ expertise is reduced to readership numbers that it (news agency) can generate and determine the value of the person and article they are writing. This is most unfortunate.

    1. Competition for readers and ad dollars has only intensified with the Internet as well. Many freelancers — like her, like me — are being offered LOWER fees than pre-2008. Nothing I buy today costs less than it did then. It is a real problem.

  11. I was emailed this article a couple of weeks’ ago and it really is a depressing and infuriating read. Are we absolutely hellbent on infantilising the entire human race until all we will respond to are branded catchphrases and endorsed soundbites as curated by lobotomised lackey-editors?

    It’s disgusting.

  12. I think that the whole scenario is amazing. It definitely supports the idea that money is not the prime motivator for some people. There are a lot of sociological and psychological undercurrents in this post. Why do we do the things we do? Why do we take the risks we take?

    Ultimately, the things that we live are based on free choice. Ms. Borri could go home. Yet, she doesn’t. Why? She feels that she is fulfilling her purpose. Her entire life has prepared her and placed her in this moment, and she is not about to run from it.

    We all take risks. We all take risks based on our agendas, whether we have an altruistic agenda or not.

    Finally, I hate to be crass, but Ms. Borri’s book after the Syrian conflict (assuming she makes it) will probably do a little better than $70 a piece. I will buy it.

    1. You make some great points….many journalists feel a very strong sense of mission/purpose about their work, certainly on stuff of this level.

      But, as a two-time non-fiction author, I would not assume she’s planning to write a book or will be well compensated for it (relative to the hours/weeks/month she has spent on the topic — probably comes out to a minimum wage or less) or that anyone will buy it. That, too, is a risk.

      1. Very true.

        How do you feel that the advent of news via Internet is impacting the work of reporters like this, aside from the obvious earnings implications? What can be done to adapt to the tendencies of the information era without forsaking the foundations of good journalism?

      2. Well, the earnings is a serious issue! I’ve been offered as little as $50 to $150 for a blog post that would require several hours work, multiple original interviews, writing and possibly revision. I laugh and go do something else for print instead…so the problem is that some experienced veterans like me simply won’t do on-line work. It’s far too much labor for stupidly low wages.

        So then who WILL produce this “journalism”? Very young people (with no experience or training) and/or desperate (will they be ethical in their approach anyway?) and/or naive, I assume. That bodes ill in my book!

        The sad truth is that terrific journalism requires training (on the job or not); excellent teachers/mentors/editors; skilled peers…Does that exist on-line? It does. There are some very good on-line sites — but I have no idea how they’re being funded!

      3. THAT is the issue. Advertising drives funding, funding drives great journalism, great journalism drives faithful readership, and faithful readers drives advertising.

        What amazes me from an economical standpoint is that wages drop in the Internet environment. Publications online have lower overhead costs than print publications. They don’t need a whole lot of labor or machinery to produce material. Online advertising is not cheap. If profit margins are BETTER, then why are the most essential cogs in the wheel (good reporters) paid LESS?

        Maybe it is a labor supply issue: Since publishing online is easier than publishing in print, everybody wants to be (and can be) a reporter. Supply increases, prices drop.

        Why does everything always come back to economics?

      4. It does, doesn’t it?

        My understanding of why online pays crap is that they (digital publishers) have still not figured out how to deliver true value to advertisers…so they guess, use SEO, etc…and they can’t get the ad $$$$$$$ that print, TV and radio (?) can.

        Thanks to the ABC (if it’s accurate, the Audit Bureau of Circulation), newspapers and magazines can accurately say how many subscribers they have and (sometimes) their pass-along rate and their demographics; i.e. much more narrowly targeted target markets.

      5. Which brings me back to the reporter from Italy: Is she writing for an online publication or for a print publication? If it is a print publication, her publishers deserve to be burned at the stake.

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